MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967) – Weak tea from The Beatles

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Magical Mystery Tour – Released Dec. 8, 1967

After a string of amazing successes, The Beatles hit a wall with their self-directed TV-movie Magical Mystery Tour. Intended to depict a wild bus tour across England, the movie was broadcast on Boxing Day and was savaged by the critics. But while the movie remains a malnourished oddity, the soundtrack is as charming as anything The Fabs ever did.

(NOTE: In Britain, the movie’s soundtrack album initially consisted of two extended-play (EP) discs containing only the songs from the movie. In America, Capitol Records — ever eager to milk the cash cow — consigned the movie’s songs to Side 1 of the album and filled Side 2 with songs from recent Beatles singles. A decade later, in 1976, the British version of the album was revised to coincide with the America version.)

Magical Mystery Tour: An appropriately jaunty tune that certainly promised far more than the movie delivered. The song still plays wonderfully for people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching the movie.

The Fool on the Hill: A very nice “story” song from Paul. The final lyric, where Paul’s voice (as the Fool?) goes from whimsical resignation to bitter anger, adds a nice bit of punctuation that keeps the song from schmaltziness. Lovely flute work, too, especially in the song’s bridge.

Flying: Truly The Beatles’ most modest instrumental, to the point that most American radio stations used it to “fade” to a local newscast. And yet, the fact that they used the same-sounding mellotron as Strawberry Fields Forever on this song constitutes a sort of hubris that makes the song itself stand out, doesn’t it? Well, doesn’t it??

Blue Jay Way: Inspired by a trip to Los Angeles, George’s underrated (as always) contribution to the movie’s soundtrack perfect conveys its sense of eerie disorientation. We apologize that the phrase “Don’t be long” gets repeated a few dozen times at song’s end, but maybe that was supposed to add to the confusion.

Your Mother Should Know: The two officially released versions of this song offer a dramatic study in contrasts. The version for the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack is Paul in typical vaudeville mode (as in When I’m Sixty-Four). the version that surfaced on Anthology 2 comes off, frankly, like a neo-Nazi march; when Paul sings “Let’s all get up and dance to a song” in the latter version, he sounds as though he’s ordering the listener to do so at gunpoint.

I Am the Walrus: Most of John Lennon’s free-associational Beatles songs sound like something stuck together to fill studio time. But on this one, John really went out on a surrealistic limb, coming up with outrageous imagery with some of the most fascinating sounds ever in a pop song (heard to best effect in true stereo, as on the latter-day compilation LOVE). A real trip.

Hello Goodbye: Paul has often been taken to task for his trivial lyrics, but this one certainly isn’t any fluffier than the “tomato/tomahto” routine in Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off. And if you can’t enjoy his “hey-la” jig at the end, maybe you should say goodbye.

Strawberry Fields Forever: This one is John Lennon’s real glass onion. Whereas its companion piece — the “double-A-side” song Penny Lane — radiates its own sweet, simple nostalgia, this song is like a multi-layered radio program, creating the atmosphere of a man lost in adulthood and looking for a long-gone place that, if it wasn’t secure in itself, created a feeling of security. And if the song’s aural richness isn’t enough to evoke this atmosphere, there’s the Lennon voice that, as producer George Martin has said, “can still send chills up my spine.” If you want to enjoy the level-by-level creation of this masterpiece, go directly to Anthology 2.

Penny Lane: A lovely (and lovingly nostalgic) counterpoint to John’s Strawberry Fields Forever, a song about an old Liverpool neighborhood, with imagery vivid enough that it really does gets in your ears and eyes.

Baby You’re a Rich Man: How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people? Beautiful enough, I guess, that you don’t have to write coherent lyrics.

The majority of Beatles music is of meticulously high quality, but then there are a few songs where it seems they just wrote any little thing that came to mind. The song’s cutesy question/answer format, which made for some nice wordplay in With a Little Help from My Friends, doesn’t help a thing here — what does it mean to be “tuned to a natural E,” anyway? What a thing to do!

All You Need Is Love: Grandly touching, especially in its naivete — in 1967, it probably did seem that love was all you’d need to solve the world’s problems. Unfortunately, the later assassination of this song’s writer provided a heavily ironic afterthought. One of John Lennon’s loveliest pieces, nevertheless.

What do you think of Magical Mystery Tour and/or any of its songs (or the movie, for that matter)? Tell us what you think in the “Comments” section below. Next up for review: The White Album.